While there is a general consensus that the uprising gripping Syria since March 2011 is part of the broader regional movement for better governance and more freedoms, there has been little debate as to the extent to which the economic and social conditions prevailing in the country contributed to the uprising. The question of whether Syrians revolted because of their thirst for freedom, justice and dignity or whether they did so because of their poor economic and social conditions remains, however, important if one wants to understand the reasons that led to the uprising and produce viable economic reconstruction plans.
At the beginning of 2011, Syria had been witnessing for several consecutive years an average annual growth in its gross domestic product (GDP) of between 4 and 5 percent, limited current account, trade and fiscal deficits, a stable foreign exchange rate, rising foreign investments and a curtailed inflation rate. These positive macroeconomic data hid, however, many imbalances that lay behind them, and other longer-term trends must be taken into account in order to better understand the dynamics of the revolution.
The level of GDP growth, for instance, may be high by Western standards but is wholly inadequate by Syrian ones. Indeed, according to most analysts, an average growth of 8 percent is required to generate enough jobs for new labor-market entrants. For more than three decades GDP growth has fallen short of that level, meaning an uninterrupted increase in unemployment for some 30 years in a row.
The fiscal deficit may be limited but this is largely a result of government investment expenditures lagging, thereby contributing to long-term infrastructural shortfalls. As for the trade balance, it remains highly dependent on oil exports, which, in 2010, represented 46 percent of Syria’s total exports. With the volume of crude reserves rapidly declining, there are serious longer-term concerns. Meanwhile, private sector investment is largely geared toward real estate and the services sector, away from more long-term labor-intensive industries such as textiles, which has seen the closure of scores of factories in the last decade. Finally, the foreign direct investment Syria attracts every year may be on the rise but it remains below Jordan’s, a country with a population a fifth of the size as Syria’s, and none of its vast natural resources.
Booms and busts
A look at longer-term trends helps puts things in perspective. In 1946 Syria was a founding member of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the predecessor of the World Trade Organization — out of only 23 countries in the world. In the 1950s, when Algeria was still under French rule and the majority of ‘third world’ countries were still fighting for independence, Syria had a buoyant economy and a vibrant political life. Then, three decades of strong state investment in the country’s physical infrastructure and in its health and education services helped boost the country’s development indicators. In the 1970s, Syria’s Human Development Index — a composite statistic of life expectancy, education and income calculated by the United Nations — was growing at a rate among the highest in the world. In 1983, Syria’s per capita GDP, at $1,901, was higher than that of Turkey — $1,753 — and almost on par with that of South Korea ($2,187). That was only 30 years ago.
Surveying what followed in the 1980s is important in order to trace back the economic challenges the country now faces. At the beginning of that decade the Syrian economy contracted sharply, partly as a consequence of the fall in global oil prices and the decline in remittances and aid from Gulf countries. The foreign currency reserves dried up, leading to a rapid devaluation in the value of the Syrian Pound starting in 1986; this year marked the beginning of the implosion of Syria’s middle class. This was only further compounded by a rapid decrease in spending and investment by the government, which, at the time, played an overwhelming role in the economy. The country never fully recovered.
In the last part of the decade oil began to be extracted from new fields in the country’s northeast, around the city of Deir-ez-Zor. A short boom followed, fueling hopes that the state would lead the recovery by investing in infrastructure and by opening up the economy. The opposite came to bear: revenues from oil income gave new fiscal margins of maneuver for the government as well as a new source of foreign currency earnings, and as a consequence reduced the pressure on the authorities to open up — Syrian economists call the 1990s the lost decade.
Starting in the 2000s, and coinciding with Bashar al-Assad succeeding his father as president, the decline in oil production again threatened the government’s fiscal position and serious economic reforms finally began. Geared toward the services sector, the gradual liberalization of Syria’s economy improved with a modernized legislative framework for investment, reduced taxation on private corporations, an unfencing of trade borders and increased private sector investments in new industries.
These developments spurred the creation of modern and relatively sophisticated banking and insurance sectors with the entry of some two dozen regional banks and financial institutions in the market. The expansion of retail trade and of the tourism industry was evidenced with the construction of large malls and the entry of global hotel operators. What is more, concessions were awarded to private international companies for the management of the country’s two ports of Tartous and Lattakia and there was a general boom in the services sector.
However, this policy of economic liberalization was marred with mistakes typical of similar processes in other developing countries.
The downside of opening up
The free trade agreements signed with Turkey and Arab countries, for instance, were implemented with little safeguards to protect or promote Syrian manufacturers. The reduction in customs tariffs led to an invasion of foreign products that put countless industrial plants and workshops out of business and, consequently, thousands of people out of work, while only limited mechanisms were established to promote exports and improve competitiveness.
More significant is the divestment of the state from the agricultural sector. While the sector had for decades been a major contributor to economic output and to the labor market, it had to face a steep decline in subsidies at the worst of times — amid a severe drought.
In 2008, after three consecutive years of drought, the government announced a threefold increase in the price of gasoil — which is used by farmers to fuel their irrigation pumps — and an increase in the prices of fertilizers to world market levels. The combination of these factors — a drought and poor policy decisions — played a major role in the staggering decline in the share of agriculture in the economy, from 25 percent of GDP in 2003 to 16 percent in 2010, or a decline of a third in its contribution to the country’s economic output in some seven years. At one point, the production of wheat, a major staple food for the population, fell by half.
The crisis of Syria’s agricultural sector led to the migration of hundreds of thousands of people from eastern parts of the country, in particular around the city of Deir-ez-Zor, to the working suburbs of cities located further west, including Damascus, Daraa and Homs.
These twin crises in the agriculture and industrial sectors — or the crisis of the “working world” as one Syrian intellectual put it — converged in many of Syria’s rural and suburban areas; the geographical roots of the current uprising very much mirror the impact. Protests began in the city of Daraa, which lies at the center of a large farming area to which fled many of the people living in the drought-affected northeast. The wildfire of popular discontent soon spread to the rural areas of Idlib and Aleppo provinces, where livelihoods depend largely on agriculture, and to the working suburbs of Homs and Damascus — home to many of the artisans who lost out from the process of trade liberalization.
But the state divestment from this “working world” is also a reflection of a more subtle generational change in the composition of the governing elite in Damascus. While farmers, for instance, historically represented a pillar of the ruling Baath Party and a large share of its rank and file — Bashar’s father, President Hafez al-Assad, called himself a peasant — the current generation of Syrian officials were largely born and raised in the cities, disconnected and therefore insensitive to the plight of rural areas.
While there is little doubt that the struggle of Syrians for a better life was driven, before anything else, by their thirst for dignity, justice and freedom, one should make no mistake: The dispossession and injustice felt by large segments of the population cannot be understood without taking into account their economic shades. Poverty, forced displacement, loss of assets and property, and gradual deterioration of living conditions are all major contributing factors to the sense of lost dignity and justice, and hence, in the eruption of the Syrian revolt.
Note: This article appeared first in the November edition of Executive Magazine